The expansion of Ohio’s registry of sex offenders must become the public-safety device its advocates claim, and not an excuse for fear-mongering and further humiliation and punishment of people who have been branded sex criminals.
Ohio is joining seven other states in offering an online search feature that allows users to enter phone numbers, email addresses, screen names, social media handles, or video-game tags to check for links to registered sex offenders.
Ohio was the first state to pass a registration and notification law to comply with a 2006 federal statute that sought to make sex-offender registry rules uniform nationwide. The state monitors the digital activities, as well as physical locations, of people convicted of sex offenses.
Registered sex offenders are already required to provide a photograph and report their home address, work address, and vehicle information to their local sheriff’s office. Now they must include their digital footprint as well.
The main purpose of the registry is to track criminals who committed sex offenses against children. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine correctly observes that as more children use the Internet, their parents must monitor their activities more closely.
The sex-offender registry can be a useful public-safety tool, but too often its information is inaccurate or vague. Not everyone on the registry is a pedophile or rapist: People can be required to register because they were caught urinating in public, or were older teenagers who had consensual sex with an underage girlfriend or boyfriend.
Offenders are required to register for periods ranging from 10 years to a lifetime, depending on how their crime is classified. But unless you are trained in law enforcement lingo or have a law degree, it can be difficult to distinguish among offenses on Ohio’s Electronic Sex Offender Registration and Notification (eSORN) database.
The new reverse-lookup feature seems cumbersome. A registered offender who engages in potentially suspicious activity online will not be publicly identified, but the person conducting the search will be advised to contact the local sheriff’s office. Each sheriff’s office will then decide how to proceed.
Balancing public safety with the civil rights of offenders who have been punished for their crimes is difficult, but necessary. People whose names appear on the sex-offender registry are often exposed to discrimination in employment and housing, threats of physical harm, and the emotional toll of depression and isolation. Playing a video game, reaching out to high school friends on Facebook, or chatting online should not necessarily become a shameful burden.
The reverse lookup could, for example, preclude registered sex offenders from searching for jobs electronically, for fear that their email addresses would become red flags. Someone could always register one email address and use another.
Forcing people to be purposefully deceitful in this fashion would do little to encourage them to become productive citizens. Once they have served their sentences, they should not be further punished because of lingering stigma.